Warm Winters Upset Rhythms of Maple Sugar

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Warm Winters Upset Rhythms of Maple Sugar

New York Times
Published: March 3, 2007

MONTPELIER, Vt. — One might expect Burr Morse to have maple sugaring down to a science.

For more than 200 years, Mr. Morse’s family has been culling sweet sap from maple trees, a passion that has manifested itself not only in jug upon jug of maple syrup, but also in maple-cured bacon, maple cream and maple soap, not to mention the display of a suggestively curved tree trunk Mr. Morse calls the Venus de Maple.

But lately nature seems to be playing havoc with Mr. Morse and other maple mavens.

Warmer-than-usual winters are throwing things out of kilter, causing confusion among maple syrup producers, called sugar makers, and stoking fears for the survival of New England’s maple forests.

“We can’t rely on tradition like we used to,” said Mr. Morse, 58, who once routinely began the sugaring season by inserting taps into trees around Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, and collecting sap to boil into syrup up until about six weeks later. The maple’s biological clock is set by the timing of cold weather.

For at least 10 years some farmers have been starting sooner. But last year Mr. Morse tapped his trees in February and still missed out on so much sap that instead of producing his usual 1,000 gallons of syrup, he made only 700.

“You might be tempted to say, well that’s a bunch of baloney — global warming,” said Mr. Morse, drilling his first tap holes this season in mid-February, as snow hugged the maples and Vermont braced for a record snowfall. “But the way I feel, we get too much warm. How many winters are we going to go with Decembers turning into short-sleeve weather, before the maple trees say, ‘I don’t like it here any more?’ ”

There is no way to know for certain, but scientists are increasingly persuaded that human-caused global warming is changing climate conditions that affect sugaring.

While some farmers and other Vermonters suggest the recent warm years could be just a cyclical hiccup of nature or the result of El Niño, many maple researchers now say it seems more like a long-term trend. Since 1971, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, winter temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 2.8 degrees.

“It appears to be a rather dire situation for the maple industry in the Northeast if conditions continue to go toward the predictions that have been made for global warming,” said Tim Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont.

Dr. Perkins studied the records of maple syrup production over the last 40 years and found a fairly steady progression of the maple sugaring season moving earlier and earlier, and also getting shorter.

“We had this long list of factors we started with that could possibly explain it,” Dr. Perkins said. “We have eliminated all of those various factors. We are at this point convinced that it is climatic influence.”

Over the long haul, the industry in New England may face an even more profound challenge, the disappearance of sugar maples altogether as the climate zone they have evolved for moves across the Canadian border.

“One hundred to 200 years from now,” Dr. Perkins said, “there may be very few maples here, mainly oak, hickory and pine. There are projections that say over about 110 years our climate will be similar to that of Virginia.”

Dr. Perkins and Tom Vogelmann, chairman of the plant biology department at the University of Vermont, said that while new sap-tapping technology is helping sugar makers keep up syrup production, for now, at some point the season will become so short that large syrup producers will no longer get enough sap to make it worthwhile.

“It’s within, well, probably my lifetime that you’ll see this happen,” Professor Vogelmann said. “How can you have the state of Vermont and not have maple syrup?”

Experts say gradual warming has already contributed to a shift of syrup production to Canada, although other factors may be more responsible, including Canadian subsidies, improved technology, and a decline in New England family farms.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, 80 percent of world’s maple syrup came from the U.S., and 20 percent came from Canada,” said Barrett N. Rock, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire. “Today it’s exactly the opposite. The climate that we used to have here in New England has moved north to the point where it’s now in Quebec.”

Maple trees are so iconic here that a good deal of tourism revolves around leaf peeping of the maples’ fall tapestry, maple syrup festivals and visits to maple sugar bushes, the name for sugar maple orchards.

While there have always been some weather fluctuations, certain conditions are critical to syrup production. To make sap, trees require what Professor Rock called a “cold recharge period,” several weeks of below-freezing temperatures that traditionally fell in December and January, followed by a span of very cold nights and warmer days.

 Catching the first sap of the season is important because it “makes the best syrup,” Dr. Perkins said. But tapping too early can cause a sugar maker to miss the back end of the season because eventually bacteria clog the holes in the trees and prevent more sap from emerging.

“It’s a real conundrum the sugar producers face,” Professor Rock said. “Do I tap early to catch the early sap flow or do I wait until the regular season, and maybe not get the highest quality syrup, but the tap flow remains open until the first buds on trees in April?”

In Vermont, which makes a third of the country’s syrup, sugar makers are trying different approaches.

Rick Marsh, president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, has kept his production high by tapping his 8,000 maples in January and using a tap with a disposable tip designed to minimize bacteria growth and keep the holes open longer. Instead of having the tap spill the sap into buckets, Mr. Marsh, like many sugar makers, hooks the tap to a labyrinth of plastic tubes and uses a high-powered vacuum to suck out the sap through the tubes.

“Farmers say, ‘I can’t afford to keep making these changes’ ” in technology, Mr. Marsh said. “I say you can’t afford not to.”

Still, Mr. Marsh, whose sugar bush in Jeffersonville is near a “Think Maple!” sign, said it was a “crapshoot” to decide when to tap. “Anybody plays poker, you’re a sugar maker. If you don’t get the right weather, it’s like not getting the right cards. And if you misjudge the weather, it’s like you misplayed your cards.”

Tim Young in Waterville tapped his 10,000 maple trees in November. “The environment’s changing, and I want to change with it,” said Mr. Young, who made 1,800 gallons of syrup by January and has left the taps in in hopes of catching a second sap run by April.

Not every sugar maker believes global warming is responsible or that the weather changes are part of a long-term trend. Don Harlow, 75, of Putney, said there were some warm years in the 1950s, and he blames El Niño for the current weather pattern.

Still, he said, “I think what we’re experiencing is a tragic, disastrous change.” He added that he tapped too late last year and made only 1,800 gallons of syrup, instead of his usual 2,500. This year, he said, “in the first week of January, heaven sakes, it was 60 degrees in Vermont.”

Global warming is such a concern to Arthur Berndt, one of Vermont’s largest sugar makers, that he became a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and four cities against the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The suit says the agencies contribute to carbon dioxide emissions by financing overseas fossil fuel projects like oil fields and pipelines, and seeks to compel them to abide by American restrictions.

December was so warm, Mr. Berndt said, “I was seeding my asparagus bed on Christmas day.”


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